It was a video that took the world by storm. It was one of those clips you could assume that everyone had already seen before you had the opportunity to share it or provide your own perspective as to what happened. I'm referring, of course, to the video showing the passenger being removed in a violent fashion from a United Airlines flight leaving Chicago. His only crime? Not wanting to give up his seat and wait for a later flight to his destination.
Reportedly, passengers were offered up to $800, in addition to overnight accommodations, as an incentive to give up their seats in the over-booked airplane. However, just two passengers accepted the offer, meaning the airline "had" to select a few others to be bumped off of the flight. The man in the videos that have gone viral told the airline he was a doctor who had patients to see the next day and couldn't afford to be late to his destination. When he refused to leave the plane, police were summoned by United's staff. He was then forcibly removed from his seat and was dragged down the aisle, visibly bloodied, as a number of passengers recorded the event for posterity on their phones. Ultimately, the plane wound up being delayed by two hours. Here's what you can learn:
#1: Reacting flawlessly matters
Like with many other PR snafus of the last few years, the story is pretty bad, but the "cover-up" makes it worse. At first, the airline's PR department released a statement telling its own version of the facts. The short flight intended for Louisville was overbooked (as is the custom). "After our team looked for volunteers, one customer refused to leave the aircraft voluntarily and law enforcement was asked to come to the gate," read the statement. "We apologize for the overbook situation. Further details on the removed customer should be directed to authorities."
#2: Use the right terminology
Oscar Munoz, the president and CEO of United, decided to weigh in, adding more fuel to the fire. "This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United," wrote Munoz. "I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers." Of course, this is corporate speak at its finest: not willing to take responsibility and saying implying that dragging a passenger off of a flight is somehow "accommodating" in any way, shape or form.
#3: Understand that internal communications will not remain private
In an email sent to employees, Munoz expresses his confusion "with respect to why this customer defied Chicago Aviation Security Officers the way he did." He doesn't seem overly concerned with the conduct of the security officers themselves -- rather, the blame has been placed squarely on the shoulders of a man who had to go to the hospital as a result of the unnecessarily rough treatment inflicted on him by the officers.
Munoz went on to tell United employees, "While I deeply regret this situation arose, I also emphatically stand behind all of you, and I want to commend you for continuing to go above and beyond to ensure we fly right." What is particularly galling about this statement is that it indicates that nobody is going to be disciplined for this egregious display of force, nor are company policies going to be changed to ensure that this type of situation never happens again. Instead, Munoz "stand[s] by" the employees who allowed this man to be brutally dragged down the aisle, and even goes so far as to "commend" them for "continuing to go above and beyond" their duties.
#4: Empathy matters
When I spoke to award-winning journalist Amy Vernon for our Big Ideas ebook earlier in the year, she predicted that brand needing to show empathy would be a major topic to watch this year. "Showing a bit of kindness and understanding toward an angry customer is going to pay off 99% of the time," says Vernon. "Treating consumers like people and not just money machines reminds them that you're also a person." It's hard to argue that United succeeded in that regard.
#5: Avoid any appearance of a cover-up
It's important to understand what crisis communications pros advise in a situation like this, in order to see how well United is doing so far. "Transparency above all," advises Rob Zimmerman, a noted crisis communications expert. "Being truthful, even if it makes one look bad, is the quickest way to reduce the length of time spent by media covering an issue or the length of public outrage exhibited on social media. By not telling the truth, the media and public will continue to seek it out, thus prolonging the public attention and exposure of a crisis. Ultimately if a company or person is found to be 'lying' the truth will come out."
"Admit the mistake," Zimmerman recommends. "Everyone is human; that goes for companies as well. If it was an honest mistake, the public is willing to accept that. But don't give a 'far-fetched' reason as to why the mistake occurred."
United has somewhat bafflingly decided that the best way to respond to the outrage and media furore is to stand by the actions of its employees and the security guards. United Flight #3411 wound up being delayed by two hours. Unfortunately for United, its reputation looks like it will be stuck on the runway for far longer.